Yasir Arafat is dead. He died not in the Palestinian state he hoped for, but in France, at 75 years of age.
The winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, Arafat was at best a revolutionary leader, at worst a terrorist. Unfortunately, what the Palestinians needed was more of Donald Trump; someone who could strike a deal with the Israelis.
Arafat never could learn to compromise, and so in the end he failed to obtain his goal of a homeland for his people.
Since 1969, Arafat has been the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). By the mid 1970s he had already linked the Palestinian cause to peace in the Middle East. After that, he achieved little. In fact, Yasir Arafat became such a polarizing figure that he became an impediment to a final peace plan with Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), the new leader of the PLO, said elections for a new president of the Palestinian Authority will be held within 60 days. A new president, hopefully with less baggage, will be given a chance to try to make a deal with Israel.
Arafat died a hero to many Arabs. While the Palestinians did not have a country to call their own, they did have Arafat as a symbol of their identity, one of the few Arab leaders who could claim any success against Israel. He became an icon, always with a scarf wrapped around his head and a three-day stubble on his face.
As a political leader, he was a failure in many ways. Arafat did not build a political structure that ensured any kind of orderly succession to lead the Palestinians. He trained no one to replace him. In fact, he did not even leave an accurate financial accounting of PLO accounts. This money is estimated to be in the billions, and no one person knows where it all is.
Was Arafat a terrorist? Until 1989 when the PLO officially renounced terrorism, the description seemed to fit him. But Arafat was anything but a terrorist in the minds of most Palestinians. He was a freedom fighter, as well as their democratically-elected leader. Simply put, Arafat is either a terrorist or a revolutionary leader, depending on whom you ask.
But in matters of peace with Israel, it will be people like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asking questions in the future. To Israelis, Arafat was a terrorist who could not be bargained with. Even in 2000 when Arafat was offered major concessions by Israel, he held out for more, and wound up with nothing.
It is now up to Arafat’s successors to try to figure out a way to deal with Israel, which could finally create a homeland for Palestinians. Who that successor might be is not known, but one possibility is Mahmoud Abbas. Early signs that a new leader such as Abbas could succeed are hopeful. President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair have made statements supporting the creation of a Palestinian state and Israeli leaders are showing signs they are willing to re-open negotiations.
Like every president since Nixon, George Bush knows that helping the peace process in the Middle East will help his legacy. He won’t want to miss this chance.
Both Palestinians and Israelis have a legitimate need for a place to call home, and those needs are not canceled out by poor decisions or questionable tactics employed by their leaders.
Arafat made it impossible for the world to ignore the Palestinians, but like an aging heavyweight champion, he held on too long. With any luck, a new leader will be able to do what Arafat could not, and negotiate a lasting peace with Israel.
It would be good news for a region that could desperately use some.
William Lodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.